Original article appeared on WaterTAP website
Alert Labs Inc. is not your typical water tech success story. While the Kitchener, Ontario company was founded by seasoned executives from the Waterloo tech region, not one of them came to the team with experience in the water sector.
“From the outside looking in, we did not have any preconceived notions about solutions for the space,” says George Tsintzouras, CEO and co-founder. “Our value proposition is that we approach the water industry differently, bringing a fresh perspective.”
Almost four years after it was founded, the company has now scaled its sensor business to six provinces and 11 states, with products in residences, schools, municipal buildings, hotels, hospitals, and wastewater treatment facilities. For Alert Labs, anywhere that uses municipal water or an electricity meter is considered fair game.
This September, the company is launching Sumpie, the latest in its suite of sensor products. According to Alert Labs, Sumpie will be the world’s first predictive sump pump sensor. The company’s other technologies – Flowie, which detects water flow in real-time; Floodie, which monitors whether you might have water ingress on the property; and Sentree, which attaches to HVAC systems to help operational efficiency – are already quite successful.
Coinciding with the release of Sumpie, WaterTAP did a deep dive with the company to discover how its technology has so quickly scaled in an industry that is not known for taking risks on new solutions.
Alert Labs was conceived to satisfy a pain point the founders shared. They all owned income residential and commercial properties that were incurring steep water-related bills. In one instance, Tsintzouras had a tenant who forgot to report a leak that later led to $15,000 in damage to his property.
“Needless to say, minimizing unnecessary expenses and accidents was a hot-button issue for us. But if you receive an unusually high water bill from the utility, there isn’t really an easy way to isolate the cause,” he says. “We focused on making very low-cost, scalable, commercial-grade utility sensing devices because that was what we needed ourselves.”
Today, the company is thriving with 30 employees and growing, operating from a 10,000-square-foot facility. Designed, engineered, and manufactured in the Kitchener-Waterloo region, none of Alert Labs’ technologies or services are outsourced to other countries.
For Alert Labs, simplicity is the name of the game. Homeowners can install sensor technologies such as Sumpie or Floodie in under two minutes. The products do not require wifi pairing and they will function during power outages.
“Set it and forget it,” Tsintzouras says. “Our products connect directly to the cloud to give real-time water data by the minute about damage that might otherwise go undetected.”
Through its elegant yet straightforward solutions, Alert Labs has been disruptive across a vast number of markets. Some end users buy their products directly, but most of its business is B2B. “We mostly work with property management firms, real estate investment trusts, value-added resellers, HVAC and water efficiency contractors, as well as insurers and cities,” he says.
In the case of insurers, claims have exceeded $1 billion per year since 2009 due to flooding. On average, the expense of repairing flooding damage to homes in a major urban city in Canada is $42,000. “Water has overtaken fire as the leading claim,” he says. “We have worked with insurers to deploy very scalable, low-cost sensors that warn about issues immediately. Our alerts can prevent insurance claims entirely.”
In using these products, cities have also reported benefits in the form of cost and energy savings. “Based on before and after Flowie installation comparisons, these clients have reduced residential water usage by up to 18%, which is especially important for rapidly growing cities,” he says.
One of the team’s proudest achievements is its work in nearly 200 schools across Canada in the past two years. With water and irrigation systems, pools, and aging infrastructure, schools can have a difficult time getting a clear pulse on potential issues or opportunities for cost and energy savings. Meanwhile, commercial-grade building information systems are cost-prohibitive.
“We love working with school districts because they can put that saved money back into the curriculum where it belongs, instead of down the drain,” Tsintzouras says.
Tsintzouras also cites the company’s impact on lead flushing programs in schools. Due to aging infrastructure, lead can build up in the pipes overnight, which requires a daily 20-minute flush of water systems to dispel potential concentrations of lead. However, school boards sometimes have difficulty tracking which schools are adhering due to the lack of a reporting mechanism. “A simple product like Flowie can report on when flushing occurs, which builds accountability, and makes schools safer,” he says.
Alert Labs discovered that in 58% of schools using its products, there are leaks of varying capacity. According to the company, on average, school are using 25% more water than necessary. Tsintzouras says that a school paying $500,000 per year on water could use a Flowie to find and fix those overruns and save the funds.
“Many schools have now become evangelists for our solutions,” he says. “They can’t believe how easy they were to deploy and monitor, and how much money they’re saving.”
The success in Canadian schools is setting a precedent to expand to the United States. “Ensuring our youth have access to clean water is essential, and we’re quite thankful to have a role in that effort,” Tsintzouras says.
Of the annual $1 billion reported in flood insurance claims, a sizable portion is due to failed sump pumps. Hoping to improve these numbers, Alert Labs has already launched pre-orders for its predictive sump pump sensor for both residential and commercial use.
“People don’t properly monitor and maintain their sump pumps, which is understandable because they can be quite complex,” Tsintzouras says.
Sumpie simply clips on and can detect whether the pump is functioning correctly. “It can give proactive warnings, a countdown by the hour before a flood is anticipated,” he says. “There are lots of commercial grade systems that cost more than $10,000 to deploy. The value of our mechanism has never been seen in the market. Furthermore, if you think about climate change, water conservation, and water costs in tandem, the world needs scalable, affordable solutions.”
“Given our initial lack of water sector exposure, we have been pleased to work with WaterTAP whenever an opportunity presents itself,” Tsintzouras says. “WaterTAP has made valuable introductions for us in the water space, invited us to trade shows, and helped us navigate the industry.”
While Alert Labs had a viable product to help end users, it did not have a clear snapshot about specific markets or contacts, or enough exposure generally. “We had never worked with government directly, or other companies in the water sector, so as ambassadors for this sector, the WaterTAP team helped Alert Labs gain exposure and insight about the industry,” he says. “They helped accelerate our progress by at least a couple of years.”
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